Friday, April 30, 1999

Sheik-ing up the Derby

Wealth is mark of Dubai stable

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — The Sheik wore blue jeans. His boots bore silver spurs but more mud than polish. His breakfast was served on a McDonald's McMuffin and consumed in the back of a barn. He looked like a man who belonged on the backside at Churchill Downs, mucking stalls or grooming colts, except his fingernails were too clean and people kept prefacing their questions to him with the words, “Your highness.”

        Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum does not flaunt his wealth through finery but through horseflesh. In that regard, he has no rival.

        The crown prince of Dubai, having attained dominance of European racing, camel racing and nuptial extravagance, lately has focused his considerable means on the Kentucky Derby. His Godolphin Racing Inc. will launch a two-pronged attack in Saturday's Run for the Roses: Aljabr and Worldly Manner. It might have been a three-pronged attack, but Aaron Jones rejected the Sheik's $6 million offer for Prime Tim ber.

        If the Derby can be bought, Sheik Mohammad is the man to do it. He has spent more than $1 billion on thoroughbreds during the last two decades — Keeneland had to add a digit to its tote board to keep pace with his bidding — and the Guinness Book of World Records attached a $44 million price tag to his 1981 wedding. (How do you spend $44 million on a wedding? Start by building a stadium for 20,000 guests.)

        His spectacular spending produced an Irish Derby winner in 1994 and an Epsom Derby winner in 1995. If Sheik Mohammad does not win a Kentucky Derby some year soon, it will be only be cause he has become bored by it.

        When he identified Worldly Manner as an attractive acquisition, the Sheik authorized an agent to contact owner John Mabee. The agent was not allowed to identify his client, only to inquire about a price.

        Mabee, a reluctant seller, set the price at $5 million.

        “Met,” the agent replied. (Sheik Mohammad has paid as much as $10.2 million for a single horse.)

        “It's great what he's doing,” trainer Nick Zito said Thursday morning. “I really admire the man. I like the way he handles himself. And if he's got a few presents left over, I'd like to get one.”

        Much as American racing's traditionalists might resent the intrusion of Middle Eastern oil money, the top trainers are shamelessly solicitous. They recognize the shape of things to come, whether it comes dressed in Western garb or in the flowing Arab robes called dishdasha. In racing there is no substitute for ready cash, and Dubai is the world capital of Fast Money.

        What refers to as “Venice on the Gulf” is a prosperous city-state of roughly 675,000 inhabitants and 4 billion barrels of oil. Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the eldest of four ruling brothers, has a fortune estimated at $10 billion by Forbes magazine. Sheik Mohammad, who oversees the Maktoum racing empire, has invested some of his petroleum profits in eight horse farms in England, four in Ireland and Kentucky's Raceland Farm.

        Some inside the equine industry fear the Sheik is spend ing the competition into submission. Others in the erstwhile Sport of Kings are simply grateful for a new pair of deep pockets.

        “The Arab loves the horse, the falcon and the dog, the saluki,” Sheik Mohammad said Thursday, surrounded by reporters outside Barn 45. “If you have only a little bit of food, you feed the horse first and then the children. If it's raining, you bring the horse inside the tent. It is the life of an Arab.”

        Yet to many racing insiders, the idea of developing a world-class stable in a desert country where betting was forbidden seemed strange and silly. When Sheik Mohammad was studying at Cambridge University, he boarded with a British family. When he bought three horses at Newmarket, one of his hosts wondered, “Why don't you sit in your tent and buy camels?”

        “When I wanted to start Godolphin,” the Sheik said Thursday, “they said, "What are you going to feed them, sand?'”

        Looking back, it was ludicrous to doubt anyone with so many dollars at his disposal. Sheik Mohammad lured Chad and Todd Boston — horsesh oeing brothers from Kentucky — by paying their living expenses and their salaries and giving them four-wheel-drive vehicles and five weeks of vacation. Dubai isn't Bermuda, but it does have a Hard Rock Cafe and no taxes. There are worse places to get rich quick.

        Whether it is a good place to develop a Kentucky Derby winner remains unclear. Because the Sheik's stable is lightly raced and trained largely in secret, it is hard to handicap. The Worldly Manner-Aljabar entry was made a 12-1 choice for the Derby, and while Worldly Man ner has his admirers, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas cautions, “I wouldn't put him in your exacta.”

        “The Kentucky Derby is a great race and a big challenge for us,” Sheik Mohammad said. “To come here for the first time and win it, that's the greatest thing that can happen. But if we don't win, we will be back again.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at

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